A visit to Cuba: Siena women headed there to play and teach

HAVANA (AP) Siena coach Ali Jaques had never seen this before.

In basketball, the home team always provides the game ball. That's what Siena expected when it headed to Havana for three games against the Cuban national team. But a few moments before the first game of the series, a referee approached the Siena bench and asked they could play with one of the Saints' basketballs.

What Siena brought was far newer and much nicer.

''That's when it hit home a little bit for me,'' Jaques said. ''And then our players realized it. We were going to be playing with a new ball that we bought, one that the Cubans don't have the ability to buy. Those were the tiny little lessons that add up.''

A handful of college programs have visited Cuba since diplomatic relations with the U.S. were restored in 2015, including five Division I basketball teams. Jaques decided to take her team to Cuba so players could see a wildly different way of life. Cell service was spotty, credit cards were unusable, wireless was hard to find. Signs of poverty were everywhere.

The three games were ancillary.

''It gives me so much more of an appreciation for where I was able to grow up,'' Siena senior Margot Hetzke said. ''It makes me very much appreciate what we have in the U.S., more than anything else.''

Siena spent a week in Havana earlier this month. The Saints stayed at two high-quality hotels, shopped for rum and cigars, got time on a beach toward the end of the trip and spent one night in a steamy hall learning how to salsa dance from professionals. There were some vacation-like elements, without question.

There also was the balance that Jaques sought.

Siena wasn't Siena on the scoreboards in the arena where a photo montage of late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is shown before games and where a mural of Che Guevara overlooks the floor; instead, the Saints were listed as USA. Birds flew over the court during the game, a few people were smoking near the Siena bench, and the court was filled with dead spots.

''An eye-opening experience,'' Hetzke said, ''to say the least.''

There was a clear educational component, highlighted by a trip to the U.S. Embassy - where the Saints met Consul General Brendan Mullarkey, who coincidentally is a Siena graduate. The Saints hosted dozens of Cuban boys and girls in a pair of clinics, not letting the language barrier deter the teaching. The basketballs Siena brought on the trip for the games and clinics were all left behind to help grow the game in Cuba. So were old tennis balls, t-shirts, tape rolls, anything and everything that the Cubans hosts thought the visitors from upstate New York might want to give away.

After the final game, the Saints even left their jerseys for the Cuban players.

''This trip is a blessing,'' said Siena senior Emmanuella Edoka, a native of Nigeria. ''Things you take for granted in the U.S., they're not here. Until you experience it, you can never really understand.''

Reminders of different eras were everywhere. Highways had a little of everything: newer-model taxis, the 1950s-era cars that tourists flock toward in Havana, motorcycles and scooters, even horse-drawn carriages and bicycle-powered carts - often intermingling on the same stretches of road. A sign bearing the words ''Socialism or Death'' greets visitors a couple miles outside of the airport; tributes to Castro aren't hard to find, either.

It is a place like few others, perhaps none other.

That's why Jaques picked Havana as Siena's summer destination. Her team is wildly multicultural; the 13 players on the roster hail from seven different nations. Many are from Europe, and Jaques wanted to stay away from there - partly because many Siena players know those countries well already.

''To travel to a country that is so polar opposite of our own, and for our kids to understand that the mentality here is one that they'll never really understand because they weren't raised that way, but to give them a little glimpse of maybe how some of the rest of the world lives is something I thought at the time would be extremely rewarding,'' Jaques said. ''And my expectations were met.''

Siena went 0-3 on the trip, and nobody really seemed to mind that much. The Saints didn't travel with winning as the primary goal; during the real season, you won't find Siena taking five-mile guided sightseeing walks as a team in 95-degree heat on the day before a game, or spending two hours dancing the night before a third game in as many days.

There also was a personal significance to Jaques.

She comes from an extremely close family, evidenced by how she insisted her mother join her on the trip. Jaques has vacationed in the Florida Keys, where her late grandfather owned a home - and on trips there, Cuba always was a talking point. Key West is only 90 miles from Havana, and Jaques has photos of her family at a monument denoting the southernmost point of the U.S. and its proximity to Cuba.

So when it became easier for Americans to visit Cuba, Jaques knew she was going to get her team there.

''There's one thing I've learned about basketball and sports,'' Jaques said. ''They can bring people together.''

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